Farm Boy, at The Corn Exchange, Newbury on Saturday, November 6
BASED on the Michael Morpurgo book written as a sequel of sorts to epic trenches tale War Horse, itself a hit on the London stage and with a Steven Spielberg film in production, Farm Boy was always going to be a quieter affair, but as it turns out, none the less powerful in the telling.
Every war hero deserves a happy retirement, and Farm Boy tells the story of how Joey, the titular horse of the first book, was finally released from his farming duties along with his mother, Zoey, after a thrilling ploughing match which set him against the newfangled tractor from a neighbouring Devon farm.
The play itself was set in the modern day, with the story of Joey and his owner Alfred - known as “the Corporal” since his return from the Great War - being told by his now-elderly son to his own grandson, a city boy inspired by farming life and his grandpa’s tales to take over the running of the family farm, and lovingly restore the vintage Fordson tractor which Joey and the Corporal had competed many decades before.
New Perspectives Theatre Company’s production was a two-hander between Grandpa (John Walters), a sometimes grumpy farmer with a fondness for whodunits, and the adult Grandson (Matt Powell), who could still relive the exuberant joy and excitement he had felt when visiting the farm as a child. Grandpa and Grandson took on the personas of their forefathers to tell the story of the ploughing match with a clarity which avoided confusion, even when Grandson was playing Grandpa as a boy, and Grandpa became his own father, struggling with a gammy leg from a war wound as he ploughed “straight and true” behind his two beloved horses.
The stark stage was furnished with just a life-size replica of the 1920s Fordson tractor which the Corporal first feared, and then built a relationship with when it fell into his ownership. The horse-drawn plough may have been represented by a chair, but its full weight was clear to see as first father then seven-year-old son steered it in an apparently futile attempt to create as many furrows as the tractor on a cold November day.
The timelessness of farm life was contrasted with the modern world as Grandson, an engineering graduate, not only took over the farm but taught Grandpa to read and write - he had never learnt as a child, having missed so much schooling to help on the family farm. Also present was a down-to-earth attitude towards death, as Grandpa wished that he could go while shutting the chicken coop for the night as his father had done.
There may have been no guns or tanks, although the War Horse tale was touched upon as a beloved family legend, but the tale of Joey and the tractor was just as gripping as any war story. The play, adapted from the book by Daniel Buckroyd was a tribute to the magnificent writing of Michael Morpurgo, and the author’s words were allowed to shine throughout.
- First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, November 14, 2010